Above: Sambal belacan with Hokkien Mee. It's self destructive to write about stuff like this when I'm kitchenless in Brazil...
It used to be that we learned to cook at the elbows of a more learned foodie. A parent. A relative. A teacher at a class. An industry master in the bowels of a restaurant kitchen.
Nowadays it seems like more and more of these teachers' elbows are electronic -- attempting to break through the limitations of time and geography, but more immediately interactive than the process of publishing and referring to a cookbook. It's getting so popular that there's an actual term for it now: the cookalong.
Various cookalong formats are in play. In the UK alone, Gordon Ramsay takes a slightly Orwellian broadcast-and-follow-me TV-show format; Nigella Lawson -- akin to a reading club -- posts a selected recipe a month and invites fans to cook the recipe at home within the month and provide feedback on her website. Rachel McCormack's first Catalan Cooking cookalong was "live" over Twitter, so her students for the session could ping questions and comments along the way (The Twitter conversation recapped here).
What's your take on these electronic elbows? Do you feel like a new universe of culinary teachers is opening up to you? Does it reduce the need for buying cookbooks and plane tickets to learn from them? Or does it encourage you to look for more of their literature and/or products in the market? Do you like the idea of a scattered community cooking "alone-together" with you? Do you feel frustrated that despite being "live" in various locations you ultimately still can't get your teacher to eyeball your frying pan and check that it "smells" right, or to taste your end-product and proclaim that yes, you nailed it?
And so it goes with this sambal belacan (chilli with dried fermented shrimp paste) recipe. A London-based reader asked me (while I was in South America) if I could help her with one. Even though I adore sambal belacan as much as the next South-East Asian -- I love it fried with kang kong (water spinach) or sweet potato leaves, or slathered over a BBQed stingray (skate) -- I didn't know how to make the pungent condiment myself. *The shame!*
Above: Kang kong (water spinach) and cuttlefish fried with sambal belacan
I confess. This is because I've been lolling about in culinary coddling. Every time I visit Singapore, my Mum and our longtime housekeeper Aunty Kiew Moi send me back to London with a couple of jars of the homemade stuff. Wrapped in several layers of plastic bags, rubber bands, newspapers and tape. It's a wonder that airport security hasn't yet sent in the bomb squad to check out these mysterious looking parcels in my luggage...
Anyway, this reader's request was a good nudge to talk to my Mum about the work that goes into these magic jars. And so it happened -- I learned how to make our family's version of sambal belacan, at my mother's electronic elbows. And now, so can you.
I hope to make this with Mum in the room someday soon. With all our modern technology, it's still the only way we'll both be able to confirm that it smells right.
Makes 2 large jam jars
1 block of 250g belacan (dried and fermented shrimp paste)
250g big red chillies
250g red chilli padi (small, very spicy bird-eye chilli)
2 tablespoons sugar (to taste)
Salt to taste (depending on where your belacan comes from)
Limes for serving
Note: If you eat dishes that use sambal belacan only infrequently, make your first batch with half the amount of ingredients suggested above. Or, make a full batch and share the love!
- Wash chillies and pat dry
- Cut block of belacan into 10 slices
- Toast belacan slices over low fire. Use an oven toaster or pan-fry in a dry and clean frying pan and toast for 4-7 minutes. Your nose will tell you when its done. Or your neighbours will. Your Asian neighbours will be banging on your door demanding to have some. Your non-Asian neighbours might also bang on your door, but probably to check if Moby Dick died in your kitchen. Two months ago.
- While waiting for the belacan to cool, de-seed the chillies. Wear a kitchen glove to prevent stinging sensation of the chilli juices
- Use a food processor to blend the belacan and chillies until smooth. Do this in small batches
- Add sugar and salt to taste during the final few seconds of each blending batch
- Store in several small containers (each container with the amount you would need for use over a couple of days)
- Refrigerate what you need for the present and freeze the remainder
- Serve with freshly squeezed lime juice when needed
Top Tips from Mum & Me
- Like wine, terroir also influences the quality of belacan. Mum's belacan of choice comes from Penang, a lovely foodie island off the northwest coast of Malaysia. We don't visit Penang as often as we'd like, but we always come back to Singapore with our bags loaded with belacan bricks when we do! (Rasa Malaysia and Eating Asia are 2 good sources for finding out more about the Penang food scene)
- Customise your sambal belacan's level of heat. If you're a chilli newbie, use more big red chillis. If you're a fiery veteran, use more chilli padi
- When using sambal belacan that you're storing in the fridge (as opposed to the freezer), make sure the spoon you're using to dish out the sambal belacan is washed and dried. Mould can develop within 2 days otherwise
- Sambal belacan stored in the freezer can last for up to 6 months (Mum admits she isn't 100% sure on this one because her batch always gets used up before then!)
Ok, Now What?
Then start experimenting with ingredients to add it to during the frying process. Water spinach. Sweet potato leaves. Okra. Eggplant. Eggs. Chicken wings. Fried fish. Fried rice. Fried noodles.
If you hit on something you really like, let me know. I've love to learn your recipe, in person or at your electronic elbows.